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Gaining Access to School Boards

Today’s excerpt from The Long Ride, Students at the Center’s collection of student writings on the history of civil rights and social justice struggles in New Orleans, continues the theme of teachers seeking quality education and social equality, often in open conflict with their school boards.

One of our teaching goals—not just ours, of course, because the state curriculum guide lists a similar learning objective—is to encourage students to understand their present realities in the context of historical events.

Teaching and learning and being parents and citizens in a state-takeover environment has presented many challenges and opportunities to New Orleanians. One of our big concerns is the changing shape of citizen access to educational policy makers. When our state legislature voted in November, 2005, to take over all schools in New Orleans that scored below the state school performance score average, it meant that four fifths of our schools would now be run or chartered by the state.

The vote itself went against the wishes of our elected representatives to the state legislature. Nine of eleven house members from New Orleans voted against the state takeover and three of our four senators voted against it.

For the last two years, the board that governs the vast majority of schools in New Orleans continues to meet 90 miles away. This distance makes parent and citizen attendance for those of us who work in and attend public schools in New Orleans nearly impossible.

Only one of our state board members was elected by the citizens of New Orleans.

As such takeovers become more frequent across the U. S., parents, citizens, teachers, and board members will increasingly have to work harder and more creatively to ensure maximum public participation in public education.

The dialogue by Maria Hernandez, which we present below, reflects on a time 70 years ago when black teachers had to find creative and unified ways to communicate with their school board.

Imagined Conversation with Veronica Hill: Charter Member of AFT Local 527
Maria Hernandez

Excuse me. Are you Mrs. Hill?

Yes, I’m Mrs. Hill.

Are you Mrs. Veronica Hill?

What did I just say child? Yes, I’m Veronica Hill.

I’m sorry I was just trying to make sure that you are the right person.

What am I the right person for and who are you?

My name is Maria Hernandez, and I just wanted to know if the rumors were true?

If what rumors are true?

That you broke into a school board meeting back in 1937.

That’s a long story that I’m willing to tell if you’re willing to listen.

Oh, am I willing to listen!

You better come sit down by me, because you’ll be here for a while.

Is it okay that I sit here? And can I ask a few questions as you go?

You can sit where ever you want and ask as many questions as you want as long as you’re listening.

You don’t have to worry about that.

So you know that we broke into the school board meeting, but do you know the history behind that one day.

What history? I thought that you were just acting on a heat of the moment kind of thing like me and my friends usually do.

Well it was something like that, but we never planned to break into the meeting. We just wanted to give them a petition signed by both black and white teachers demanding that whenever white teachers get a pay raise black teachers would get a raise too.

So what you’re saying is that white teachers were actually on your side?

As strange as it sounds, yes many of them were on our side on that issue. Some of them even came with us to the school board meeting.

So how did you decide to break into the meeting?

As I said before we just wanted to give them the petition, but when we got there the doors were locked. That’s when some one noticed that the iron steps of the fire escape were low enough to climb.

Did you have to break a window to get in or was it open?

Actually, neither—the janitor opened the window for us.

When you got into the building, did you make a big commotion and get arrested or something like that?

All we did was push the petition under the door in the room where they were meeting.

Did you ever get any results to your petition?

The very next day.

Really? What happened?

The policy was passed that every time white teachers got a pay raise, black teachers would get the same pay raise.

So what you’re saying is that black and white teachers were getting paid equal salaries?

No, child. You’re not listening. The salaries stayed very unequal, but if a two percent pay raise was given to white teachers, black teachers got it too.

Sounds like you got what you wanted.

You think?

Well, you got the raise that you demanded in the petition.

Yes, you’re right. But we knew we needed more. That was just the start of forming our own union and demanding equal pay. But that’s a story for another day.

Can I come by tomorrow to hear it?

You have a little pushiness to you, don’t you?

I’ve got a lot to learn.

Yes. Come by tomorrow and I’ll tell you about Local 527, Joseph McKelpin, A. P. Tureaud, and all of that.

Thank you.

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